Old High St. Stephen's, Inverness

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Month: August 2017

Faith in the storm: Sermon at Stephen's on Sunday 13 August 2017, Proper 14 (Year A, RCL)

Scripture Readings: Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14.22-33

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Votive ship in Nexø Church on the island of Bornholm, Denmark By Hberlin - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15968261

Votive ship in Nexø Church on the island of Bornholm, Denmark
By Hberlin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15968261

In our text from the Letter to the Romans today, Paul reminds his readers- members of a small, persecuted Church- that we Christians live by faith in Jesus Christ. We are saved by confessing that Jesus, whom God raise from the dead, is Lord- the One we can put all our trust and hope in. This is our message- a Gospel of hope for all people, without exception. It’s an inclusive Gospel- in Paul’s day, good news for both Jews and Gentiles; by implication, an inclusive Gospel for people of all nationalities and races and religions. The good news is that ‘…everyone who calls out to the Lord for help will be saved’.
And then Paul writes:

But how can they call to him for help if they have not believed? And how can they believe if they have not heard the message? And how can they hear if the message is not proclaimed? And how can the message be proclaimed if the messengers are not sent out? As the scripture says, “How wonderful is the coming of messengers who bring good news!”

A more literal translation of the final sentence is: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ (Paul is quoting from the book of Isaiah). Perhaps I should have worn new socks today. For after a gap of many months I find myself back in this pulpit at St Stephen’s. I’m back at my trade: to wrestle with Scripture, and bring you good news. Whether my feet are beautiful or not you will have to guess for yourself!
For Paul’s words to the Romans reminded me this week of what I am called by God, and by you, to do among you. We each of us have our different ministries- different ways in which we serve the church, serve our neighbours, serve God. Last week I preached my first sermon since mid-September, at the Old High Church, and I reflected with the folks there that it was a struggle to prepare it during the week (and I was pretty worn out after delivering it). And yet, it was great be once again wrestling with a Biblical text in order to find a word from the Lord to share with the congregation. So this week has been my second week of reading the Bible, not just for myself, but for you folks as well. We are all called to be messengers of good news. But my particular vocation is to preach that message among you all, and it’s been good to be back at my trade.
But this week, I wanted to say to St Paul: where’s the message in this difficult story about boats and storms and walking on water? What is there to be said about this story from the Gospels, that is really good news for this congregation? Should I say to you that you have to believe that a man can walk on water? But that’s not very good news if it’s too difficult for you to take literally. Or should I chide you, complain that you’re like Peter the disciple, who tries walking on water only sinks when he gets frightened? But making you feel guilty about your lack of faith doesn’t sound like good news either. No, I need a change of plan- or even a change of socks!- if we are to hear some good news from our Gospel passage story.
In many ways, this Gospel story is about the presence of Christ in our lives. And yet, it is a story that begins with the absence of Christ. At the very beginning of the story, our translation says that ‘Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side of the lake,’ while he goes off to pray alone. He ‘made’ them get into the boat without him, says Matthew- you can actually translate as he ‘pressurised’ them into getting on the boat[1]. It’s almost like a test- how will they cope without him?
Into the boat they get. Many writers, down through the centuries, have understood the boat in this story as a symbol of the church- and I won’t disagree with that. The boat goes out into the darkness, is not making much headway, for the wind as against her. How’s that for symbolism for today’s church? So often the church seems to be making heavy weather through a dark and stormy night. No wonder we want to sing words like ‘When the storms of life are raging, stand by me’[2].
A lot of people nowadays imagine that Christians are really weak people. They think faith is a sort of crutch to get weak people through life. Such people don’t know about the real experience of believers- that faith is often uncertain, doubtful. Believers can feel like those disciples whom Jesus left to sail without him on a boat on a dark and stormy lake. Yes, the disciples remembered Jesus telling them God would be faithful. But as the night got darker, and the winds got higher, and the waves began to slop over the side, it wouldn’t be surprising if they thought less of God, and more about whether the people in charge of the boat knew their job.
And that, if we are honest, is quite often how it feels to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. We’ve been told he’s with us- but he seems to have left us to his own devices. We are all at sea- and we hope the sailors are good.
Those of you who have been through serious medical procedures will know that feeling. Like the disciples on the boat, you’ve found yourself in the hands of people whom you hope know what they are doing, for your life depends on it. That was dramatized starkly for me, when I found myself recently in the hands of my consultant as he wiggled a couple of wires inside my heart as I watched it, live, on an X-Ray TV screen. I did so hope he knew what he was doing!
Yet every day we are in the hands of other people. We hope the person who fitted the brakes on our car knew what he was doing. We trust that the people who brought us our breakfast egg made sure it wasn’t contaminated. We hope that when the gas installer came to our house, she did the job properly. We hope that the builder used fire-safe materials in our house. We hope that those who are advising Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are careful people who know what they are doing. Every day of our lives, we depend on other people.
And yet- this does not mean that we do without God. Yes, following Christ can seem sometimes as if we have been sent on a boat trip on a dark night on a stormy lake. But that is precisely what faith is all about. Often, the language of faith in the Gospels is the language of journey, adventure, going out into the unknown. ‘Take up your cross and follow me!’ says Christ. ‘Go out into the world, baptising people everywhere!’ Faith is a movement, a process, a journey. Faith is not about sitting still, staying where we are taking no risks. Faith pressurizes us to get on the boat, set sail for the unknown. We are not called to live in a cocoon, wrapped up in pious sentiments shielding from life’s harsh realities. Faith is an adventure, a journey in the unknown, dangerous, treacherous. A voyage on stormy waters.
Now, the next thing that happens in this happens, says Matthew, happened between three and six in the morning. I love that wee detail. Because some of you may know I used to be a hospital porter. Sometimes I did night shift, and any of you who have done night shift, or had to stay awake all night, will perhaps agree with me that the worst time of night are the few hours before dawn. We had done all the routine stuff, like clearing away beds. Patients were mostly asleep, and it was unusual for us to be asked to take someone somewhere in the hours before dawn. So we would sit around in the porters’ room, and as the night went on, we’d soon we’d be too dozy to talk or read or watch TV. We had all wore walkie-talkies strapped to our belts; if yours bleeped and buzzed at that time of night, it made you jump.
Presumably on that boat, someone was at the wheel, or the tiller, or on the watch- I don’t know much about ancient Sea of Galilee fishing boats, but presumably someone was in charge. And even if it was choppy and windy, they were (if they are at all like me between three and six in the morning) finding it hard to keep awake. And then, through the mirk, he sees something which makes him jump- it looks like a man walking on the surface of the water. No wonder they thought it was a ghost, and cried out in panic!
But Jesus says to them: ‘Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid’.
And in the wee small hours, when we feel things cannot get any darker, when we are dozy and disorientated, distracted by the winds change and the storms that threaten to sink us- ‘It’s me’ says Christ. If he did walk on water, it’s because he’s Lord of Creation. For we Christians do not put our ultimate trust in other human beings (no matter how expert they may be), and on technology (no matter how safe it seems to be). The gas fitter, or the general with the nuclear codes, might be having a bad day. Sometimes ships sink, planes crash, houses burn, wars start- all of these, different kinds of human failures. But everyone who calls out to the Lord for help will be saved, because the God of Jesus Christ is hands of the God of Creation.
I really think everybody has got faith. Even those who say they don’t have faith still have to put their trust in something. Christians think that nothing created can ultimately be trusted- and it takes a lot of courage to think that. We face the darkness and the darkness by singing with the Psalmist: ‘Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth’[3]. For, after all, it would be daft to depend on anything less.
And so Peter, the impetuous fisherman, see his friend Jesus, now Lord of the Waves, and shows us exactly what the risk of faith is all about. He clambers over the side. We should celebrate Peter’s courage, instead of bemoaning the failure of his courage once he’s out there. Jesus says that Peter lacked faith, but I think that’s unfair to Peter. For even as he began to sink he knew what to do- he cried out to Jesus to save him. For Peter knew that ‘Everyone who calls out to the Lord for help will be saved’.
If you don’t like being in a boat, if sailing makes you queasy, then I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you. For all of you (apart from the choir) are sitting in a ship right now. The English word for the area of a church where the congregation sits is the nave– which comes from the Latin word for a ship (it’s also related to the word navy). If you’re part of the Church, you’re all at sea, whether you like it or not!
There were places in the Highlands and Islands where, when the Disruption in the Church of Scotland took place in the nineteenth century, the new Free Church congregations literally had to have their services in boats because the landowners wouldn’t let them build their churches on the land. We should remember that all our churches are boats. For then we would remember that we are all on a journey, for faith is a journey. We would remember that on the journey of faith there will be storms and danger. We would remember that Christ sent his disciples on a voyage: a voyage to bring light to a dark world, a voyage to speak peace to a stormy world. A voyage in which we put our trust in the Lord of the Creation, and no-one and nothing else.
As Paul says, our God is the Lord of all people and stretches out his hand to save all who call to him for help. In our stormy, uncertain, dark world, that, brothers, and sisters, is, I hope good news indeed!
Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2017 Peter W Nimmo
[1] Arthur van Seters, in Allen, Ronald J. Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A (p. 347). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
[2] Charles Albert Tindley: CH4 570 (sung before the sermon)
[3] Psalm 124:8

Listen to him!: Sermon on Transfiguration, Old High Church, 6 August 2017

Scripture Readings: Exodus 34:29-35
Luke 9:28-36

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today’s Gospel reading- the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus- is a strange, even unlikely, tale. And it’s been an interesting story for me to live with. Because for months now, whenever I have read the Bible, or thought about a Biblical text, I have done so just for myself. I’ve read and I’ve thought about the Bible, and heard others speak about it, in sermons or conversations. And, as always, the words of the Bible have brought me comfort and challenge.
But this week, for the first time in months, I’ve read and I’ve prayed and studied and wrestled with a Biblical text; and I’ve done it not just for myself, but for you folks as well. I’ve been asking- is there a Word from the Lord for in this story? And how can I speak that word to my congregation this Sunday?
So here we are. I have a sermon for you. Creating it has not been easy. But it was exciting to be doing this again. So I hope you will enjoy this sermon, because I enjoyed crafting it for you, after such a long break. It’s been good to take the strange, unlikely story of the Transfiguration and ask, ‘Is there a Word of God here?’- not just for me- but for you too!
To begin by retelling the story- Jesus takes three of his chief disciples- Peter, John and James- up a hill to pray. The disciples fall asleep, but as Jesus prays, ‘his face changed its appearance, and his clothes became dazzling white’. Suddenly he is joined by two Biblical heroes of the past, Moses and Elijah, who ‘appeared in heavenly glory and talked with Jesus about the way in which he would soon fulfil God’s purpose by dying in Jerusalem’, says Luke, the Gospel writer. The disciples wake up to this extraordinary sight. Peter says an odd thing about building tents for Jesus and the other two (whom he seems to know are Moses and Elijah). But he is interrupted by the shadow of a cloud, and a voice speaking from the cloud. And suddenly, they are alone with Jesus once more.
The story of the Transfiguration is about how the disciples came to know that their friend, Jesus, was much more than they had so far been able to comprehend. It’s a mystical, mysterious experience- the sort of thing which is hard to put into words. It might not have been a single event. Perhaps it’s a story to illustrate how, over time, the disciples grew into a deeper understanding of Jesus. And Luke the Gospel writer tells the tale in language and imagery which we nowadays perhaps struggle to understand.
Let’s begin our struggle to understand it by recognising that this is a story which reminds us of the Jewish roots of our faith. This story of Jesus ‘glowing’ as he has an encounter with the divine has a number of parallels in the Hebrew Bible. Luke the Gospel writer wants to make comparisons with the ancient heroes of the Jewish faith, such as Moses. Moses went up a mountain to receive the Ten Commandments (just as Jesus and his companions go up a hill in our Gospel text). Moses experienced God speaking out of a cloud, experienced the glory of God as a shining light, and was, in fact, transfigured as Jesus is in the Gospel story. When he came down the mountain, Exodus tells us, ‘his face was shining because he had been speaking with the Lord’. Moses was shining so brightly, that he had to wear a veil so as not to blind his companions. He was shining with the reflected glory of God.
Luke uses the same imagery in the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus- imagery of the glory of God lifted straight out of the Hebrew Bible, which would have been very familiar to the first, Jewish, followers of Jesus. And then Moses, himself, comes into Luke’s story. Moses appears to Jesus, along with another Old Testament character, the prophet Elijah. Luke is telling us that Jesus is a successor to Moses, the law giver, and Elijah, the prophet. Jesus stands in line with the heroes of the Jewish story. He’s the latest witness to the God whose glory shines in the Old Testament.
The Church has a lot to apologise for, because Christians have not always valued the Jewish roots of our faith, and have encouraged discrimination and violence against the Jewish people. In 1986, Pope John Paul the Second visited the Rome synagogue. Acknowledging the sad history of Christian persecution of the Jews, he said,

The Jewish religion is not “extrinsic” to us, but in a certain way is “intrinsic” to our own religion. With Judaism therefore we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.[1]

I love that image of the Jews as our ‘elder brothers’ in the faith. For our Saviour, Jesus Christ was born a Jew, grew up in a Jewish family, imbibed the law and the stories of the prophets as he grew. All this we are reminded of in our Gospel text today, in the story of the Transfiguration.
The Sunday Times newspaper recently had to sack a columnist for writing about some television personalities (who happened to be Jewish) using old anti-Semitic clichés. Surprisingly, antisemitism seems to be making something of a comeback. You would think that after the Holocaust- in which six million people were murdered for being Jewish- we would have moved away decisively from those kinds of attitudes. Yet anti-Judaism still rears its ugly head.
Today we still find that those who are outspoken against immigrants and other minorities are often also anti-Semites as well. Historically, racism anti-Judaism have gone hand in hand. We seem to be seeing a rise in intolerance and discrimination against people in our communities who follow different religions, faiths or nationalities. As we respond to these frightening trends, Christians would do well to remember that our faith has deep roots in Judaism, the religions of a group of people who were often targeted for being different. We should remind those who justify racism by saying claiming they’re defending ‘Christian’ values that Christianity is a world-wide, multicultural faith, which was founded by a Jew.
For our faith goes back those 2,000 years to Jesus, the wandering rabbi of Palestine. Yet Christianity is, as a hymn puts it, ‘ever old and ever new’[2]. We need to reinterpret the meaning faith for each generation. Ours is a world which changes faster than we can keep up with- and too often, the Church fails to get our message across because we use the methods and language of previous generations.
However, the story of the Transfiguration reminds us that ours is an historical faith. The disciples saw Jesus talk with Moses and Elijah- and Luke writes that ‘Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus about the way in which he would soon fulfil God’s purposed by dying in Jerusalem’. By going to Jerusalem, Jesus would challenge the old religious authorities. By dying on the cross, he would inaugurate a radically different relationship between God and humanity. Jesus was a religious radical. But as he prepares to do radically change things, he has a conversation with giants of the faith from his past.
As we ponder the future of the faith in our own day, as we wonder about what the future of the church might be, I ask you to take away that image of Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah. Getting ready to do a new, radical thing, reimagining the old religion for the people of his day- but doing so in conversations with his ancestors in the faith. Today, we too, need a conversation with the ancestors. Moses and Elijah weren’t telling Jesus that things needed to keep things as they had made it. No!- Luke the Gospel writer says it was a conversation about the future– about how Jesus would die, and thereby do God’s will. Moses and Elijah are not calling on Jesus to be a traditionalist. But he consults with them about the new, radical, world-changing thing he is about to do. Jesus was not a traditionalist, but he lived out of the tradition. And there is a model for the Church of today- as we get ready to do new things, let us have a conversations with our ancestors. They don’t get to tell us what to do- but they do have wisdom we need to hear.
Even as the disciples try to make sense of what they are seeing- Jesus transfigured, talking with ancient heroes of the faith- the light is dimmed. They are covered by the shadow of a cloud. And out of the cloud comes a voice. Again, this is imagery with which Jesus’ Jewish followers would have been familiar from the Hebrew Bible. They would remember that God spoke to Moses from a cloud. Now the disciples hear a voice from the cloud: ‘This is my Son whom I have chosen- listen to him!’
Well, we do that, don’t we? We’re Christians- of course we listen to the Son of God. That’s what all this effort I’ve put in this week is meant to achieve- to produce a sermon in which we hear a Word from the God of Jesus Christ, and which you can take home and live with. And yet- how hard it is to listen to- and to obey the Word of Jesus Christ.
Just before the story of the Transfiguration in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples who he thinks he is, and Peter says, ‘You are God’s Messiah’[3]. And he then goes on to tell his disciples what lies ahead. He will go to Jerusalem, and he will die and be raised to life. This, then is the context of the Transfiguration story. It’s the point at which Jesus begins to move decisively towards Jerusalem. He will move from his home region, Galilee, towards the centre of power. Jerusalem is the home of the Temple, the seat of religious power. And it is the seat of the Roman governor, Pilate- the seat of secular, Roman imperial power. Jesus is telling his disciples that his work will only be complete when he has directly confronted those powers. He will suffer, even die, for confronting power in Jerusalem. And yet, this is the Son, whom we have to listen to. And having listened, we are called to follow.
‘Listen to him!’ says the voice from the cloud. But directly before he went to pray on the mountain, he has told Peter and John and James and his other closest disciples that they, too, will suffer for following him. ‘Anyone who wants to come with me must forget self, take up their cross every day, and follow me. However wants to save their own life will lost it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will save it’[4]. That is hard to listen to, scary to obey. And yet he also makes a promise- ‘…there are some here who will not die until they have seen the Kingdom of God’[5].
Listening to and obeying Christ will may sometimes bring comfort, but will always lead us into conflict and suffering. In Luke’s Gospel, this happens as soon as the disciples come down the mountain. A father comes to Jesus, asking him to help his son who’s possessed with a demon, who doesn’t seem to be able to be cured. Jesus scolds the people for their lack of faith- even the disciples who have seen clearly on the mountain can’t quite seem to grasp what is going on here. But eventually, Jesus does bring healing, leading the people to rejoice as the power of God comes near.
God’s kingdom disrupts the world- but we’re not always clear how and why. Our world is full of controversy, division, misunderstanding- and yet, even in our confused and confusing world, healing can happen, love can triumph- the Kingdom is at work. In Jesus, the Kingdom is here. Preaching the Kingdom will lead him to his death- and yet he will be raised, for love cannot be defeated.
It has been said that at the Transfiguration, ‘…for a brief moment, the curtain, as it were, is drawn aside, [the disciples] have been allowed to see in Jesus something of the glory of God and his kingdom’[6]. If we listen to Christ, sometimes the curtain will be drawn aside, all will seem clear, and for a moment we will see the glory of God, as the disciples saw it on the mountain of the Transfiguration.
But following Jesus will also bring suffering, confusion, misunderstanding, conflict. In the struggles of life, we don’t see the glory of God as clearly as the disciples did on top of the mountain of Transfiguration. We have to do without mountain-top experiences most of the time.
But perhaps the sign of real spiritual maturity is when we see God at work in everyday struggle and suffering. One of the things which I’ve been reminded of recently are the many people who have said to me, as they have faced far worse personal problems or illness than I’ve ever experienced, that they nevertheless have felt the presence of God sustaining them. And it’s true- God remains present when as we carry our cross, as we face denial, suffering, ignorance, ridicule- even death- for the Kingdom of God. For God is equally present in the valleys as the mountaintops. God is just as present when we are struggling with our faith, as he is in those times when, for a moment, the curtain is drawn aside, and we see and believe clearly.
‘Listen to him!’ Listen to him among the myriad of other voices, which offer false comfort, lies which sound like certainties. Listen to him tell us to love our neighbours- yes, even the ones whose nationality or religion seems so strange to us. Listen to him as he tells us to strive for good over evil, justice over wrong, peace over violence, love over hatred. Listen to Jesus Christ, speaking of the glory of the God of Moses and Elijah. And take up the cross and follow him, till you, too, shine as someone who has seen the glory of God face to face!
Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2017 Peter W Nimmo
[1] From Pope John Paul II’s discourse during his visit to the Rome Synagogue on 13 April 1986: http://www.vatican.va/jubilee_2000/magazine/documents/ju_mag_01111997_p-42x_en.html
[2] One more step along the world I go (Sydney Carter, CH4 530)
[3] Luke 9.20
[4] Luke 9.23-24
[5] Luke 9.27
[6] Schweizer, The Good News According to Luke p161

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